Luther was a Saint and a Sinner: A Reformation Response to Ongoing Anti-Semitism

SERMON Reformation 2018 John 8 31 36

Today is our Lutheran high holiday- the day we celebrate all things 16th century and German, right? Well, not exactly. A lot has happened since Martin Luther affixed his 95 grievances to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517. And, the Lutheran church that evolved from all of that important history and rich theological tradition is SO much broader today than just German culture. According to the Lutheran World Federation, there are as many Lutherans today in Africa and Asia as there are in Europe. The global face of the Lutheran Church today is not so much German as it is Tanzanian or Ethiopian or Pilipino.  So why do we have this festival devoted to remembering Martin Luther and the movement that followed his critique of the Church? On Reformation Sunday we remember where we’ve been so that we can understand who we are and where God’s moving us today.

Martin Luther never set out to break the Church apart, rather his deep love for the Church drove him to attempt to fix what human sin had broken within the Church. He considered himself a faithful Catholic his whole life through. He saw first hand the injustice of selling indulgences, and the spiritual abuse perpetrated on his parishioners by the likes of John Tetzel. The Bishop of the territory was corrupt and owed stiff fines to the Vatican. And so the selling of indulgences, while casually common in many places, was  rampant in Germany. Luther saw the poor giving away all the money they had to put food on their tables in exchange for a worthless piece of paper which they were told was Grandpa’s “Get out of Purgatory Free” card.  The people –even Luther himself- understood God to be wrathful and terrifying. They were weighed down by the law which they had been taught by the Church. They lived in constant fear of God’s punishment. And the Church manipulated that fear to sure up its own wealth and power.

The ordinary Christian of the time had no choice but to believe and accept what the Church taught as doctrine, they could neither read the Bible for themselves, nor understand the words of the mass. But Luther was a professor of Theology at the University of Wittenberg. From 1510-1520 he lectured on the book of Psalms, Hebrews, Romans, and Galatians, and he became convinced through his close study of these scriptures that the Church’s teaching on several central tenants of the Christian faith were not in line with the Biblical witness. While his ire over indulgences began his dispute with the Church, his most important theological legacy lies with the doctrine of justification. He stated in no uncertain terms, that in light of the truth revealed in scripture, Christians receive the gift of salvation by God’s grace alone by faith in Jesus Christ alone. There is no cause to live in terror of God, for God loves us and wants us to give each one of us the gift of salvation. God comes to us in love through no work of our own doing. Through God’s grace, God imparts upon each believer the righteousness of Christ Jesus, so that as God looks upon us, God sees the light of Jesus, which covers our every sin. Yes, we are sinners. But there is no need to live in fear, for God makes us saints through his grace.

It’s important to know where we’ve come from so that we can understand who we are and where God’s leading us.

In our gospel passage for today, a small group of Jewish religious authorities who have actually come to believe in Jesus as a prophet, seem to have forgotten their fundamental history.

Jesus has just spent the last 7 days preaching and teaching in and around the Temple in Jerusalem for the harvest festival, Sukkot, the festival of booths. Some of the religious authorities have taken great offense at what Jesus has been preaching, some are calling for his arrest, but others sit listening intently to him along with the rest of the crowd.

And Jesus says to those who are listening, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

And at this statement, the authorities who had believed in him finally took offense, saying, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone!”

These religious authorities think so highly of themselves that they’ve divorced themselves from a fundamental part of their history and from the essential meaning behind many of their religious observances and festivals.

“We’ve never been slaves to anyone!”

What about those 400 years in Egypt?

The festival of booths, which they had just celebrated for 7 days, commemorates the 40 years their ancestors spent living in tents while sojourning in the wilderness after leaving Egypt. What did they think they were having a camping party at the Temple? The point of the festival of Sukkot is to remember God’s providence for God’s people who were newly freed from slavery.

Jesus sets the record straight, saying not only were their ancestors slaves in Egypt, but these religious authorities –and every other human being who commits sin is enslaved to sin.

We are all sinners. That is the truth.


Jesus says, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free FOREVER!”

There’s no need to live in terror because of our human propensity to sin. There’s no need to sweep our flaws under the carpet, or to live in shame.

Christ Jesus, and Christ alone, sets us free from all that weighs us down! Christ Jesus sets us free from sin, covering us with his own righteousness! Christ Jesus sets us free from fear and shame, lifting us up with God’s own grace and love forever!

On Reformation day, we remember God’s providence for all of the Reformers who put their lives on the line for the sake sharing this liberating gospel far and wide. And most importantly, we acknowledge that this work of Reformation is never ending.

We need this message of God’s expansive grace and love for all people. As Lutherans in the 21st century we sometimes forget our history and our identity. And we sometimes try to set limitations around God’s grace. God’s grace is a gift for all people. And all means all.

Being saved by grace means that we own our sin, we don’t have to sweep it under the rug and pretend it didn’t happen, but we seek forgiveness and trust that God’s grace alone is what heals us. I was going to end this sermon differently, but in light of our history as Lutherans, yesterday’s anti-Semitic attack on the synagogue in Pennsylvania’s largest Jewish community in Pittsburgh demands an address. Eleven people, beloved by God, were gunned down during Shabbat worship, by a gunman who shouted out “All Jews must die!” This heinous act of hate was the work of one man, but the prejudice bred in his heart runs centuries deep.


As Lutherans on Reformation Day, in light of the continuing anti-Semitic violence in our society today, we need to continue to own our historical sin. We’re not going to be like the Pharisees forgetting that we were once slaves in the land of Egypt. As Lutherans, we were once Anti-Semites.

While Luther wrote many wonderful, liberating works of theology, and while his actions as a reformer are to be celebrated, we need to remember today that toward the end of his life he wrote some particularly horrific anti-Semitic writings as well. These anti-Semitic writings were in line with the status quo thinking of the Church of the 16th century, but Luther’s writing them down gave these hateful positions an air of authority. These writings laid the foundation for ongoing persecution and prejudice against Jews throughout Europe and the United States, throughout the centuries since the Reformation. While the ELCA officially condemns and rejects these writings, many so-called Christians who have expressed prejudice against Jews have done so citing Luther’s writings as their license to hate.

Luther was a saint, and a sinner. We can celebrate his noble contributions, while decrying his sinful prejudice. As Lutheran Christians, we are continuously reforming so that God’s Church on Earth may come to reflect God’s gracious will. As 21st century Lutheran Christians, we mourn and confess the ways in which our historical church contributed to prejudice against the Jewish community. We wholeheartedly reject anti-Semitism and prejudice of any kind, toward any minority group. And our work of reformation today is to be on the front lines, standing up for the oppressed and the marginalized and embodying the inclusive love of God wherever we go. God loves our Jewish neighbors, and so do we.

Luther was a saint and a sinner. But, the bedrock of our faith is not Martin Luther, but Jesus Christ as revealed to us through scripture. On Reformation Sunday we remember where we’ve been so that we can understand who we are and where God’s moving us today. Where humans fall short, where human sin causes harm for many generations, Jesus Christ will never fail us. Christ and Christ’s love alone is our strength, our motivation, and our healing balm to carry on the work of Reformation in our world today.  Amen.

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